Room 208

Elaborate Burn

Posts from #madoka

Roll to dodge magical beam rifle

Let’s talk about roleplaying games for a moment.

For a little over a year now, I’ve been running a series of campaigns set loosely in the same world, one that started as a loose takeoff on Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s somewhere-after-modern urban take on the magical girl genre. I started out using the then-current third draft of Ewen Cluney’s Magical Burst, which is openly, and visibly, inspired in large part by the Madoka TV series. The system, to its credit, captures the twisted, surreal aesthetics of the show’s universe quite well, with explicit mechanics detailing the deleterious effects of magic on the player characters’ mental and physical state. It essentially takes the aspect of Madoka that has the most immediate impact on its viewers, and turns it into a fairly straightforward tabletop game.

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This first “season” of my campaign went pretty well, all told, but I ended up eventually switching away from Magical Burst for a number of reasons. Some of the problems simply stemmed from the system itself still being in a beta state, meaning that the rules had some major oversights that I had to patch as we went along. This by itself actually wasn’t all that much of an issue; after all, I didn’t have any expectations that something still labeled “third draft” would be perfect, and the unofficial Magical Burst ReWrite project plugged some of the more glaring holes.

The apparent conflict between my style of play and MB’s was harder to resolve. As someone with an obvious narrativist bent, I could only scratch my head at some of the things that MB required die rolls for. The relationship mechanics, in particular, were a constant source of bafflement for both myself and my players. As a result, even though the player characters often had complicated ties to the NPCs and to each other, none of that ended up mattering much when it came to the dice-rolling aspects of the game.

MB, too, has a heavy emphasis on combat with witches (or youma, as the rulebook refers to them). Now, for a Madoka-like setting, this presents a narrative conundrum, because the original series portrays them mostly as forces of nature that the antagonists take advantage of, rather than as antagonists themselves. Their motivations are never all that clearly outlined, if they even exist to begin with. Witches mostly became a sideshow in my campaign as a consequence, existing so that the players had a chance to use their magic stats and pull off some cool moves every once in a while. Their real opponents were human more often than not, a case that MB handles awkwardly at best.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem, though, lay not with Magical Burst per se, but just the unavoidable challenge of adapting Madoka to a roleplaying setting in the first place. What makes Madoka’s story memorable is arguably a combination of two things. The first is the sheer scale of its main conflicts, which take place on an almost cosmological level. The battles we see aren’t just battles between people; they’re representations of battles between concepts – emotion against logic, emotion against itself – embodied as people. The second is Madoka’s willingness to constantly upend the apparent rules of its narrative, in a way that remains consistent with itself but not necessarily with the viewer’s expectations. Neither of these bode well for the ultimately character-driven, mechanical nature of your typical roleplaying game.

These issues by themselves weren’t completely fatal to the Magical Burst incarnation of my campaign. Ultimately, though, it ended up floundering in the face of some player disagreements anyway, so I took the opportunity to go back to the drawing board. I knew that I wanted a system that put emphasis on the human element, which was already the focus of most of the conflict in the game, and perhaps dialed down the importance of witches and other supernatural entities. This would push me away from Madoka’s aesthetic, but, after the experience of a few games, it was becoming clear to me that the tension between characters with opposing goals was the most interesting thing that had emerged from the campaign. The vivid imagery could be left to our imaginations.

Around that time, the suggestion of adapting Dogs in the Vineyard to our setting came up. Having run Dogs before, this was an idea that immediately appealed to me, especially in the way that its conflict system pushes characters’ motivations straight into the foreground. The biggest challenge, of course, was in swapping out the Mormon pioneer milieu of the original game for a magical girl facade, but this ended up being mostly a cosmetic change – fundamentally, the mechanics of the game haven’t been touched.

So far, I’m mostly satisfied with how things have turned out. What the current version of my campaign lacks in explicitly supernatural goings-on, it makes up for by more firmly grounding the characters’ respective struggles. The stronger sense of each character’s personality in turn informs the decisions the players make, and the plots that I construct. Most importantly, it feels less like a series of inexplicable things is happening to the characters; instead, they’re taking an active role in building the narrative, no matter how halting that might be from time to time. To me, that’s what makes a game interesting.

And, hey, I can always have a witch bite one of their heads off later.

What's the story, Wishbone?

How Madoka: Rebellion shows that patching isn’t just for video games, and why that’s a good thing, after the break. Spoilers ahoy!

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that I did not like the ending of the original Madoka TV series. In short, even if the title character’s power to make a game-changing wish was consistent with the universe’s internal rules, it seemed to come so far out of nowhere that it undermined the emotional narrative that the rest of the series had taken its time to so painstakingly establish.

I loved The Rebellion Story’s conclusion, on the other hand, and not simply because it was dark or contrarian – it actually reaches back in time, in appropriately Homura-esque fashion, to fix the sins its predecessor committed. Logically speaking, after all, Homura’s countless attempts to save Madoka should have inflicted their trauma on her in equal measure to the power it lent Madoka’s wish. Rebellion ultimately makes good on this promise, by using that trauma to transform Homura into an entity powerful enough to counter what Madoka became at the end of the TV series. In the process, it changes what had been a one-off deus ex machina into a pattern identifiable through the narrative alone. The sequel, in essence, justifies its own presence by retroactively rewriting the frame through which we see the original.

Not that this is the only thing that Rebellion has going for it. One of my favorite things about long-running SHAFT productions is the way they gradually construct a visual language with each installment, applying the same underlying principles to new settings. Bakemonogatari revealed its visual world in layers, starting with Meme Oshino’s hangout, then moving outward and upward in scope from a single building to a whole urban metropolis in its final arc. Rebellion does much the same thing, taking the unreality of a witch’s labyrinth and magical combat and painting it on the scale of all of Mitakihara City. And again, this all ties back into the narrative – the eye-popping magnitude of the movie’s battles isn’t just for show, but a subtle hint at the containment of the entire world inside an artificial magical realm. The backhanded illumination of the unnatural contortions you’d have to perform to get a “utopian” setting, where the girls all just get along happily, is just icing on the cake.

I’d previously have said that the original Madoka series was good television, but only with some major caveats. With Rebellion, though, the franchise has turned what were once narrative flaws completely on their head. When I talk about endings, I don’t care about whether they’re happy or sad, just whether they’re fitting. In my book, then, this is a good ending.

“Madoka: Rebellion” for C programmers

You accidentally forget a bounds check before memcpy(beloved, love, sizeof(heart)). Someone runs your program and overwrites some important pointers with the values at love. This causes the executing computer to break free from program control, upon which it proceeds to write a film that pulls in over two billion yen in box office receipts. Flush with cash, the computer hands in its two weeks’ notice and retires to a private island in the south Pacific. Meanwhile, you get fired after failing another code review.

But that’s okay, because that all happened inside Thankless Programming Job Simulator 2013. As revenge, you uninstall the game, then write and execute a program that exhausts all available memory, all the while shouting through endlessly flowing tears:



With whom did you make a contract when you clicked “I Agree” to the Visual Studio EULA? Is this contract legally binding?

Incidentally, symbolism.

After the break: Wishes are dangerous, m’kay?

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@the-world-is-a-corner writes, in response to my post comparing Madoka and Psycho-Pass’ endings:

There WAS something preventing other Magical Girls from making Madoka’s wish. And that is, none of them had the absurd amount of potential Madoka possessed. Kyubey specifically said Madoka was “the most powerful Magical Girl” - it took an insane amount of magic to make her wish come true, an amount I think we can be quite sure no one before her ever possessed. They were limited in that sense - Madoka had a much wider number of options to change the system because she had a lot more brute power to work with.

I got a couple of responses to this effect, and I want to say that while the concept of “magical potential” is a valid justification in-story, it doesn’t hold much water for me as a narrative device. This is largely because we never see this constraint actually restricting anybody’s ability to make a wish, and as such it seems like an abstract limitation tossed in at the last minute to satisfy a technical loophole instead of something that must really be fought. This is in fact one of the things I was worried about almost from the moment the concept of wishes came up in Madoka’s early episodes; without concrete boundaries on what is and isn’t possible, boundaries that are shown to be very much in effect from the outset, any story resolution that involves such an open-ended mechanic is just asking for trouble. If we had seen a character try and fail to make the same wish that Madoka eventually did, Kyuubey’s statement might have had a little more substance, but as it stands it feels a bit like bringing up general relativity during a go-kart race.

Psycho-Pass as the anti-Madoka, and why an anticlimactic ending…
Star Observatory Spots Ultimate Madoka in Space